I landed on the idea of going solo when the company I was working for at the time decided to downsize, shutting the doors on my department in the process.
Had I known what lay ahead I might not have been so eager to set out on this journey.
It all looked so amazingly straightforward in my Moleskin. I’d drawn doodles and everything. I guess the fact that I decided to embark on my quest for independence in 2008 accounts for a lot of the hardships I faced, but recessions notwithstanding, running your own business is hard. Really hard.
Now that I’ve completely put you off, let me add: it’s also the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. Even my MBA from London Business School places a distant second in comparison, and that’s saying something.
What started as a two-man PR band has, over the course of the past seven years, grown into a fully integrated digital comms consultancy, with services ranging from SEO and inbound marketing right the way through to animation and live event filming.
It’s been a hair-raising, ulcer-inducing ride and I wouldn’t change it for the world. Here’s what I’ve learned so far, and what I wish I’d known going into this adventure.
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On Winning Clients
An enthusiastic ‘yes’ over coffee does not necessarily guarantee new business. Wait until you have a signed contract on your desk before you start counting those chickens.
Everybody loves a creative, clever campaign, but that in itself won’t guarantee repeat business. If you want your clients to keep coming back, you need to show them how you’re impacting their bottom line.
Qualify every lead before you decide to pitch. Confirm the budget and find out who has signed off on the project. This will save you a lot of time, money and energy. Three things that are often in short supply with new start-ups, especially lean ones (is there any other kind?).
Sometimes a potential client will try to negotiate a lower price. Only agree to it if you’re able to reduce your service level as well. If you don’t you’ll end up charging less than you are worth, which will set a bad precedent and leave you feeling resentful.
Pitching for new business is a skill. If you’ve ever been cold called by a less than proficient salesperson, you’ll know what I mean. The survival of your new business is dependent on you doing this well if you don’t know how to do it then pay someone that does to teach you.
Once You’ve Won Said Clients
You don’t have to deal with people who can’t be bothered with social niceties. It goes back to setting precedents. Working with clients who don’t respect you or the work you do is demoralizing. Firing them (nicely) will make your team happy and it’ll free you up to work with people who understand how to treat their fellow humans.
It’s not fun for anyone involved, but occasionally a mistake will happen. By ensuring your service is generally above par you’ll find that clients will be a lot more forgiving when something does go wrong.
Clients expect you to be proactive. Don’t wait for them to come to you with a plan, instead, make it your business (because it is) to generate new ideas and take them to your client. It’s a win/win. Your proactive approach will impress them, plus you’ll have a constant stream of angles to work on.
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Ask for honest, tell it like it is feedback and then take it on board. There’s every chance this will hurt (a lot). But which would you rather have? Blissful ignorance that leaves your company stagnating or brutal honesty that will show you where you can improve and do better?
Contrary to what you’ve been led to believe, the client is not always right. Don’t be afraid to tell them when you think they’re wrong. They’re paying you for your expertise, so don’t just agree with them because you’re afraid of rocking the boat. You owe it to them to speak up if you think what they’re proposing is a load of hogwash. Just don’t say hogwash.
Managing Your Team
The best people are not motivated by money. Which is not to say you should pay them peanuts. Just don’t expect to keep them motivated by waving a fist full of cash in their faces. You need to challenge them, give them an opportunity to progress and stimulate their sense of curiosity. You should also pay them well, but that goes without saying, right?
Everyone is replaceable. We don’t like to believe this, least of all when it comes to our star player, but staff changes are not always such a bad thing. Rather than view someone leaving as a loss, see it as an opportunity to change things up and instill some fresh blood in the team.
Don’t underestimate the value of emotional intelligence. It’s as important as, if not more than academic intelligence. Learn how to look for it during the interview process and you’ll save yourself a world of hassle down the line. You can never spend too much time on the interview stage.
Exit interviews are an excellent way of finding out where you can improve. When someone has resigned they no longer have to concern themselves with saying the right thing and more often than not will tell it like it is. Don’t miss out on the opportunity just because you’re worried your feelings will be hurt.
While we’re on the subject of feedback, give your team a platform where they provide theirs anonymously (we use a monthly "start, stop, continue" questionnaire on SurveyMonkey). It’s important that you act on what you get back though, because if you don’t your team will lose faith in you as a leader.
One final word on the subject. If a team member does something, wrong or right, it doesn’t matter, feedback to them immediately. Don’t put it off because you’re feeling uncomfortable.
Keep That Forward Momentum Going
There’s something to be said for reducing your cognitive load. Cognitive load refers to the mental effort being used in the working memory (source: Wikipedia). In other words, the more you don’t have to think about mundane, everyday tasks, the more room you have in your brain for things that matter: like creativity and strategizing.
There’s an app or piece of software for just about everything nowadays. If there’s something you do repeatedly within your business, automate it or improve with technology.
Don’t treat all competitors like they’re your arch enemy. Some are really nice people who just happen to be in the same business as you. More often than not they’ll be happy to share what they know. Be generous too it’s good for your Karma and it’ll make you feel good too.
It’s in our nature to be nice, but one area you need to play hardball is your finances. You get those clients who’ll take a chance and pay late. Don’t let them get away with it. If you let it slide once, the likelihood of them ever paying on time in the future is slim.
I’m a huge proponent of not just delegating, but trusting my staff enough that I feel comfortable handing over the reins entirely. The one area I don’t do this is with my company’s finances. I always know exactly what’s going on and you should too. By all means, employ an accountant to do the day to day work, but you should always have a handle on things.
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Your time is precious. As a business owner, you’re no longer a worker, you’re a leader. Obviously there’ll always be those instances when you need to roll up your sleeves and muck in, but on the whole, your job is to build the business and lead your team. This means honing the art of saying ‘no’ gracefully. Stop agreeing to every request that comes your way and you’ll soon have a lot more time to focus on the things that matter.